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Agents of Social Change Online Exhibit: New Resources on 20th-Century Women’s Activism
Created and maintained by the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Mass.
Reviewed January 2004.

This online exhibit marks the opening of eight sets of papers housed in the Sophia Smith Collection: the papers of Constance Baker Motley, Dorothy Kenyon, Mary Kaufman, Frances Fox Piven, Jessie Lloyd O’Connor, and Gloria Steinem and the records of the Women’s Action Alliance and the National Congress of Neighborhood Women. The site aims to do two things: to provide a sampling of materials from and a gateway to the eight collections and to offer curriculum ideas based on documents in the collections to teachers of middle and high school students.

As an exhibition and gateway to the collections, Agents of Social Change Online Exhibit largely succeeds. It is arranged in a visually pleasing and easily navigable fashion. Readers can link to overviews of the collections directly from the home page. From there readers can typically access several documents. For example, readers interested in the Gloria Steinem collection can find one issue of a M.A.N. for E.R.A. newsletter, one fan letter, and Chicana Caucus Resolutions from the 1973 National Women’s Political Caucus Convention. Researchers can also link to each collection’s finding aid, which describes further its scope and contents. While the Web site gives readers easy access to these finding aids and may pique interest in the collections, the inclusion of more digitized documents would certainly deepen the richness of the exhibit.

While creators hoped the curriculum would make the materials usable by teachers and accessible to their students, in large part this section of the exhibit fails. The lesson plans contain very little historical context to make a teacher’s job easier, and the documents themselves are not introduced or annotated. This lack will make it difficult for teachers to use the curriculum successfully. For example, the lesson plan for the Constance Baker Motley materials uses fascinating documents concerning a group formed at a Manhattan public school in the 1960s, the Children’s Organization for Civil Rights. However, the documents refer to both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the need to get African Americans to vote—but students need to know both some information about the NAACP and what obstacles historically stood in the way of African Americans registering to vote in order to make any sense of the materials. All of the lesson plans contain similar drawbacks, and, in addition, teachers are rarely given thorough instructions on how to implement the curriculum ideas or where to direct students to do further research. While some teachers may be able to provide needed context and information with little effort, others will not be able to do so without further research, an obstacle to these plans being implemented by already stretched teachers.

In short, although Agents of Social Change Online Exhibit may tempt scholars further to explore the research potential of these newly opened collections, it is not because the exhibit itself is particularly rich, but rather because the finding aids suggest the collections themselves will be. And the lesson materials, while presenting fascinating and generally well-chosen documents, need to provide more historical context and guidance for teachers truly to be successful in middle and high school classrooms.

Melissa Doak
State University of New York
Binghamton, New York